In the most specific case of keeping-up-with-the-Jones' ever, a recent study shows that having an outdoor cat makes people think you're less eco-friendly — even if you recycle, compost regularly, and get your energy from solar panels. Say what?
The study by Cornell scientists, published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, found that people who owned roaming cats were judged to be less "pro-environmental" than others — and that has interesting implications, not just for your furry feline, but for how we're judging out neighbors (and why).
The scientists performed their experiment using an online environmentally friendly community, using two different fake profiles. The profiles were exactly the same — dedication to solar panels, low-impact lawn and other aspects of a green lifestyle — with one difference: one had an image that suggested the user had an outdoor cat. When people who viewed the profiles were surveyed, the presence of an outdoor cat significantly lowered their opinion of the user's sustainability. Outdoor cats, the scientists explain in a press release, are "a divisive issue for many nature lovers because of the threat they pose to wildlife, particularly birds." But the cats created a reaction so negative that people then ignored virtually all the evidence that the user was attempting to be environmentally friendly. Solar panels were no match against outdoor kitties.
There are two things to be learned from this. One is that very strong ideas about what counts as "good" behavior in environmental terms — recycling, for instance — can cloud our perceptions of peoples' real green credentials. It's an interesting insight into human judgement, and means that you should think before you condemn anybody too hastily for "not being earth-friendly". The second thing, though, is more complicated — are outdoor cats actually the threat to the living world that many people believe them to be?
A lot of roaming cats' reputation is based around their propensity to leave you special gifts on your front porch. But there's a bit of disagreement about how bad it actually is. A research article published in Nature Communications in 2013 got a huge amount of media attention because of its estimates of the impact of outdoor cats on local wildlife. The researchers believed that "free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals annually" in the U.S. alone, with the vast majority of the deaths occurring due to stray, barn and feral cats as opposed to your beloved Fifi going out for a stroll. It was a number that caused shock. But how accurate was it?
The Humane Society in the U.S. released a statement in response noting that "[the scientists] have thrown out a provocative number for cat predation totals, and their piece has been published in a highly credible publication, but they admit the study has many deficiencies. We don't quarrel with the conclusion that the impact is big, but the numbers are informed guesswork." An analysis by NPR also noted that the study is tending towards extreme numbers because they're essentially performing guesswork on the number of feral and stray cats that really exist in the U.S.; we don't know if there are 30 or 80 million. (Hey, you try counting them.) And birds aren't the only targets. Cats also kill rodents, rats and other invasive pests, which gives them a bit more green cred.
One of the scientists behind the recent study, Pete Marra, continues to advocate for the serious negative environmental impact of outdoor cats. In a 2016 Smithsonian Magazine profile, he strongly recommends that domestic cats be kept housebound as much as possible, while also noting that strays are creating the bulk of the problem for American wildlife. Pet welfare groups also note that domestic cats aren't just risks; they're also at risk themselves in the outdoors, because of the spread of disease and the potential of danger from cars and other animals.
Ultimately, a roaming cat is likely not the best idea, if only for keeping your beloved feline around for as long as possible; outdoor cats live for an average of five years, while indoor ones can live to 18 or 20. But it's also not valid to completely trash the environmental reputation of your neighbors just because you've seen their cat snoozing in the garden sometimes.